by Chris Yano
Compal HEL80 (view large image)
The Compal HEL80 is a 15.4" mid-range gaming system that offers power and performance at a reasonable price. The HEL80 is often directly compared to the Asus S96J/Z96J (96J hereafter). Many prospective buyers will find themselves trying to decide between these two similar systems. I went through this very process five months ago when they were both newly released. The business-class HP nc8430 also meets the requirements of those looking at the HEL80 and 96J, but it is a more expensive option.
My goal is to help you make an informed decision about whether or not the HEL80 is right for you and to provide a resource for new HEL80 owners.
My system’s Specifications:
- Intel Core Duo T2500 (2.0 GHz)
- 2 GB Corsair RAM @ 667 MHz
- 256 MB Nvidia GeForce go 7600
- Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound
- 15.4" WSXGA+ Matte display (1680×1050)
- 100 GB 7200 RPM SATA HD
- Built-in Secure Digital (SD/MMC) & MemoryStick/MemoryStick Pro reader
- Dual-layer DVD RW optical drive
- 3945 a/b/g Wireless
- Internal Bluetooth adapter
- 14.25" x 10.4" x 1.25~1.5"
- 6.95 lbs. including battery
- PowerPro 3-year Warranty with Next-Business-Day Shipping
- Windows XP Pro
I paid roughly $1,770 total including shipping for the above configuration from PowerNotebooks.com. I had an unused copy of XP Pro lying around, so my price does not include the operating system.
Reasons for buying
My desktop was converted into a business machine, so I needed a new personal system. Having owned three Dell systems (one notebook and two desktops), I went with the Inspiron e1705. Unfortunately, the system crashed regularly and technical support could not figure out the problem. It was probably due to a faulty hardware or software installation, but I could not lose any more time trying to fix it. It was a shame to return it because I liked the e1705.
Although I do not play games as often these days, I definitely want the ability to do so. The Sager NP5760, which is more powerful and not much more expensive than the Inspiron (I paid a lot for mine), came highly recommended. I almost bought an NP5760, but my doubts about getting another 17" desktop replacement held me back.
When I had taken the e1705 out of the box, I remembered my reaction to its size. Although I had seen 17" systems in stores, holding one in my hands (store models are always bolted down) was quite different and I did not want to take such a large system around with me. Since I liked the idea of spending less on a smaller-yet-capable system, I decided on a mid-range system.
The Asus 96J had always been a stand out and I was pretty much set on it until the Compal HEL80 was released. Some well-respected NBR forum members posted very positive comments about the HEL80 in the forums and I began to weigh the two options. Speaking with Donald Stratton of Powernotebooks helped me a great deal, and the reasons for my buying decision are spread throughout this review.
The single most common question asked about the HEL80 concerns its graphics card. Yes, Compal underclocks the Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 in the HEL80. The stock clocks are set at 350MHz core/350MHz memory. Asus sets the x1600 in the 96J at 450/370. I will discuss overclocking later in the review.
Inferior 3D Performance?
If clockspeeds and synthetic benchmarks are what you will ultimately base your decision on, you should look at the Asus 96J or the HP nc8430. Although they both receive higher scores in 3DMark05 than the HEL80, keep in mind that synthetic benchmarks are exactly that — synthetic. Real-life gaming experiences with all three systems will be relatively similar since their GPUs perform at equal levels. I have not been disappointed by the gaming performance of my HEL80 at native resolution (1680×1050) with stock settings. I do not overclock my GPU nor have I upgraded its drivers.
In my opinion, all notebook keyboards leave something to be desired. Now, I have not had the privilege of using a ThinkPad, but I have used a number of notebooks over the years. I prefer the full-sized external keyboard/mouse setup on my desktop, but when I do use the HEL80’s keyboard I have no complaints.
Although this keyboard is well-suited to my typing style, some may feel it is on the bouncy/flexible side. Numerous HEL80 owners have employed a quick and simple fix to stabilize their keyboards. I do not notice the flex and it gets the job done as-is.
There are some HEL80 owners who do not like the way the cooling fan operates. The HEL80’s fan is fairly quiet and is hard to notice most of the time. The problem is that the fan can cycle on and off under certain conditions, which is irritating to some. It does not bother me, but in a silent room it could be bothersome to sensitive ears if it begins to cycle.
There have been a handful of HEL80 owners who have experienced an issue with the LCD failing to come back from Standby or automatic shutdown. It is a Windows glitch and not a fault of the HEL80. I have not experienced this problem, but here is a link to download the Hotfix for it.
A small number of HEL80 owners have reported hearing interference through the headphone jack. I investigated and it took me some time to locate the noise, since it is very subtle. There is a slight hiss/buzz when scrolling webpages or documents, and when the hard drive is accessed there is some feedback. These sounds are quite muted in my opinion and any audio signal would easily cover them. It bothers some HEL80 owners while others do not hear it at all.
A few HEL80 owners have noticed a slight ringing coming out of the processor area while the notebook is on battery power. My ear was very close to the S key before I noticed it. The ringing disappears when on A/C power, although it may have some effect on professionals looking to do internal recordings on the HEL80. An external audio solution will easily bypass this issue for audiophiles. Underclocking the CPU while on battery power with Notebook Hardware Control or a similar hardware utility will also eliminate the ringing.
Is it Ugly?
Many are concerned about the HEL80’s looks. If you read around in the forums, nearly everyone who owns one likes their HEL80’s appearance. I was not sure I would like the system’s appearance when I ordered it, but it does look much better in person. I like its classy look with brushed aluminum and ice-blue/fire-orange LEDs. XoticPC had one painted red and the photos give you another perspective of the system’s design.
Is it Thick and Heavy?
The HEL80 is actually a touch thinner and just a tad heavier than the 96J with its 6-cell battery. They are essentially the same size and weight. The thinnest and lightest notebook in this category is the HP nc8430, listed by HP at 14.1" x 10.2" x 1.1" and ~6 lbs.
|Compal HEL80||Asus S96J/Z96J|
|GPU||256 MB nVidia go 7600||256 MB ATI x1600|
|GPU stock clock speeds||350/350||450/370|
|Screen||WXGA glossy/WSXGA+ matte||WXGA glossy/WSXGA+ glossy|
|USB 2.0 ports||3||4|
|Input slots||ExpressCard & PCMCIA type II||ExpressCard|
|Integrated TV Tuner||Optional||Unavailable|
|Battery||9-cell battery||6-cell battery|
|Dimensions||14.25” x 10.4” x 1.25~1.5”||14.25” x 10.55 x 1.54”|
|Weight||6.95 lb. including battery||6.8 lb. including battery|
Build & Design
HEL80 Top View (view large image)
The HEL80 is solidly built. When I took this system out of the box, I immediately noticed the higher quality of it over the Dell I had returned. It is made of higher-quality materials and has a better fit and finish than your standard mainstream notebook. None of the plastic feels cheap or brittle. It takes serious pressure on the back or sides of the LCD to create minor ripples. Twisting the screen also does very little to the image.
HEL80 bottom view (view large image)
The touchpad is made of brushed aluminum, and the LCD lid and keyboard trim are also adorned with the stylish metal. The brushed aluminum design really gives the notebook a touch of class and its own unique look. Also worth mentioning are the LEDs; the ice-blue and fire-orange LEDs subtly accent the overall aesthetic of the HEL80.
HEL80’s LEDs (there is a little bit of light leaking into neighboring unlit LEDs) (view large image)
HEL80 WSXGA+ screen at 4/7 brightness level. The hinge is neither too tight nor shows any signs of loosening after four months of daily use. (view large image)
Having previously used a glossy screen, I was not sure I would like the matte finish on the HEL80. I had owned a couple of matte LCDs before but liked the brightness and contrast of glossy screens. Donald convinced me to give this one a try and I am glad he did.
Vertical viewing angle of HEL80 WSXGA+ screen (view large image)
The matte WSXGA+ screen is bright and well-lit. Colors are vibrant. Contrast and sharpness are good. It utilizes Samsung’s new LGP Prism technology — lighting inwards from the corners for even display brightness. It has better horizontal/vertical viewing angles than the glossy screen did on the Inspiron.
Horizontal viewing angle of HEL80 WSXGA+ screen (view large image)
HEL80 WSXGA+ specifications:
- Brightness – 185 cd/m2 (nits)
- Contrast ratio – 300-500
- Viewing angles – 130 degrees horizontal/100 degrees vertical
- Response time – 25ms
Webcam cover (view large image)
The HEL80 comes with an integrated 1.3 MP camera. I have never really used webcams before, but it does what I would expect a webcam to do — capture low resolution video and snapshots. It is a standard integrated camera, although the sliding cover is a nice touch.
Speakers & Sound
Sound from the HEL80’s speakers is decent — it is not overly tinny and does not get distorted at max volume. I would appreciate a slightly better range, but these are only notebook speakers and they get the intended job done. Overall, I am satisfied with the sound quality and volume of the speakers. A decent set of headphones/earphones will allow you to better appreciate the Intel High Definition Audio. As discussed above, there is the slight interference issue through the headphone jack.
Processor and Performance
I purchased my HEL80 a few months before the Core 2 Duo was available. A Core 2 Duo processor would undoubtedly give slightly higher benchmarks scores, but nevertheless here are my results. Tests were done with all settings at default.
This is about what you would expect from the HEL80 in 3DMark05 with stock settings (350/350). Overclocking will yield scores of about 3700 in 3DMark05.
|Notebook||3D Mark 05 Results|
|Compal HEL80 (2.0 GHz Core Duo, 256 MB Nvidia Go 7600)||3,085 3D Marks|
|Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400)||1,791 3D Marks|
|Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)||4,236 3DMarks|
|Alienware Aurora M-7700(AMD Dual Core FX-60, ATI X1600 256MB)||7,078 3D Marks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,092 3D Marks|
|Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI x700 128 MB)||2,530 3D Marks|
|Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,273 3DMarks|
|HP Pavilion dv4000 (1.86 GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)||2,536 3D Marks|
|Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 256MB)||2,090 3D Marks|
My PCMark05 results are a little higher than Chaz’s due to the extra GB of RAM in my system
Another synthetic benchmark we use is Futuremark’s PCMark 05. This is a good general measure of system performance.
|Compal HEL80 (2.0 GHz Core Duo, 256 MB Nvidia Go 7600)||4,206 PCMarks|
|Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo)||3,487 PCMarks|
|Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60)||5,597 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3,637 PCMarks|
|Panasonic ToughBook T4 (Intel 1.20GHz LV)||1,390 PCMarks|
|Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400)||3,646 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo)||3,427 PCMarks|
1 m 17 s in Super PI (view large image)
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Compal HEL80 (2.0 GHz Core Duo)||1m 17s|
|HP dv6000z (1.8GHz Turion64 X2 TL-56)||1m 54s|
|Compaq V3000T(1.6GHz Core Duo)||1m 26s|
|Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.00 GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 02s|
|Toshiba A100(2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Acer Aspire 5102WLMi(1.6GHz Turion64 X2 TL-50||2m 22s|
|Gateway E-100M(1.2GHz Core Solo ULV)||2m 02s|
|Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|HP dv5000z(2.0GHz Sempron 3300+)||2m 02s|
38.0 MB/second average transfer rate on this 100 GB 7200 RPM HD (view large image)
Overclocking and Gaming Tests
In the spirit of this review I did some overclocking. I expected more of an increase in overclocked gaming performance based on the large increase in benchmark scores. I hardly noticed the difference between stock and fully overclocked settings — even when alternating between the two settings — probably due to the fact that stock gaming performance is adequate.
|Clock settings||3DMark05 score|
* some artifacting occurred in one of the games tested
Far Cry (Fort)
1680×1050, All settings at Very High (Shadows and Lighting on High), AF at 1, AA off, V-Sync Off
|Clock Settings||Min. FPS||Max FPS||Average FPS|
Star Wars BattleFront II (Jabba’s Palace)
1680×1050, All Settings on High, Light Bloom OFF, AA off, V-Sync Off
|Clock Settings||Min. FPS||Max FPS||Average FPS|
If maximum 3D performance is your goal, the Asus and HP will get you a few extra FPS with 3DMark05 scores closer to 4000.
Heat and Noise
Heat is not much of an issue with this system. The only areas that warm up are the touchpad and to the left of the touchpad. With regular use, these areas are slightly warm. Under heavier loads and gaming, they get warmer but never uncomfortably so. The cooling system works quickly and efficiently by blowing warm air through a large vent on the left side and a smaller one in the rear. It does not take long to cool the warmest areas after a gaming session. Although the fan is quiet by my standards, there is the intermittent on/off cycling that can occur at times as highlighted above.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Note the brushed aluminum trim and touchpad. The FN button is in the lower left corner. (view large image)
As I mentioned earlier, the keyboard is a common topic of discussion regarding the HEL80. Although I do not have a problem with it, you may prefer the HP nc8430’s keyboard if you are picky. As is fairly standard, Media and Quick Launch buttons are located around the keyboard.
The HEL80’s touchpad is nicely done in brushed aluminum, giving it a nice feel. I do not use the touchpad often, but it works as well as I expect it to. There are some HEL80 owners who do not like how the cursor jumps to the scroll bar when using its scroll feature. The cursor can easily be moved back into place after scrolling, but the complaint is worth mentioning.
I would have liked to see a touchpad on/off switch or button. It can get irritating if you unintentionally touch it while typing on the keyboard because it will move your cursor unexpectedly. Proper hand placement while typing can eliminate this problem for the most part, but when using the notebook keyboard I have occasionally had this happen to me. The touchpad needs to be manually disabled every time the system is started and can be a hassle.
The fingerprint scanner was a feature I did not see myself using when I ordered the notebook, but its usefulness came as a pleasant surprise. It is a convenient way to secure files or sign into the numerous websites you visit. It is also a great way to secure your Windows log-in.
Front View (view large image)
Front view, left to right: Media reader, Wireless switch, LCD latch (view large image)
Left side view, left to right: TV tuner, vent, USB, Firewire, Ethernet, PCMCIA, ExpressCard (view large image)
Right side view, left to right: Headphone/speaker jack, microphone input, USB (x2), optical drive, VGA (view large image)
Rear view, left to right: S-video, notebook lock slot, 56K modem, vent, A/C power (view large image)
The HEL80 comes equipped with the Intel 3945 a/b/g wireless card. I have experienced no problems connecting to my home wireless network with a strong signal. This is a fairly standard wireless solution in modern notebooks so there is not much else to report on. An internal Bluetooth adapter is also available on the HEL80.
The standard 9-cell battery is a nice feature. I originally thought I would not like the battery sticking 3/4" out of the back of the notebook. The protrusion, however, is generally out-of-sight and the extra capacity affords you an extra hour or so of battery life. Although a 6-cell battery is available as an accessory, I believe the benefit of having 33% more battery life with the 9-cell battery far outweighs the single cosmetic negative.
I got 2 hours 45 minutes with wireless on. I spent the entire time on the Internet and using MS Word. LCD brightness was at 3/7 and I had my external keyboard and Logitech G7 charging base running on the HEL80’s battery. With wireless off, LCD brightness at 1/7, and no peripherals I was able to extend battery life to 3 hours 50 minutes while doing work in MS Word.
Customer Service and Support
My experience with PowerNotebooks has been positive. Donald Stratton was more than willing to answer my questions. He made himself available after hours to help me make my final decisions. Communications have been very personal and professional. I look forward to 3 years of worry-free computing under the PowerPro warranty.
If I had to single out the biggest shortcomings of this system, I would have to say that the underclocked GPU and flexible/bouncy keyboard would be the primary issues for most users. I have highlighted a number of smaller issues that others may have with the HEL80 throughout this review to the point of nitpicking minor flaws. I have mentioned that none of them particularly bother me, yet one or more of them may be problematic for some.
I realize this review may come across as overly-positive; however it was not my intention to gloss over the system’s shortcomings. I realize that nothing is perfect and I feel lucky that the biggest complaints about the HEL80 do not bother me. There are areas that could be improved; every notebook system has its flaws. I’ve used my HEL80 everyday for four months now and the above issues take little away from the ownership experience. Overall, it is an excellent system that offers exceptional value and design at an affordable price.
I hope this review helps making your decision a little easier. Here are additional reviews for further reading on the HEL80:
- Great Build Quality
- Stylish design
- Excellent WSXGA+ Screen
- Runs cool and quiet
- PCMCIA and ExpressCard
- Great Price/Performance ratio
- Underclocked GPU
- Keyboard Flex
- No DVI-D